Thursday, August 31, 2006

TRAVEL: Aberdeenshire Roots

LUMPHANAN, Scotland -- The amazing thing about the Aberdeenshire countryside is how much is unchanged from two hundred years ago. Sure there are cars and electricity, and some adaptation to a tourist economy. But there are still a lot of farms and country estates. What made this particularly clear to me was the research I've done on my own family history, one branch of which comes from this area. I have learned a lot about my 4x-great-grandparents Robert Sherrat and Isobel Spring, where they lived, how many children they baptized, and so on, and through that research I have a pretty good knowledge of the various farms and estates that existed in the parishes of Birse and Lumphanan in the period 1790-1830. Back in that time, there certainly weren't any street addresses, so people were merely identified by the name of their farm and the name of the parish, and that was sufficient to locate anyone. I was pleased and surprised to discover that of all the farms my family lived on, all of them still exist, at least in some form, and can still be found on high-detail present-day maps. So being that I was here, and had a car, it would have been inexcusable not to drive out to these places and see what I would find there.

Our first foray into my family history was to look in the Lumphanan kirkyard to find the grave of Mary Sherrat. (She was the daughter of Robert and Isobel, and the one who keep the family line going in Scotland, while other siblings emigrated to Canada.) After a morning of whisky-tasting and an afternoon touring Castle Fraser, we followed increasingly narrow country roads to get us across to Lumphanan. After finding the church (which we could see up on a hill, but had a little trouble figuring out how to get to it), we wandered among the graves, arranged along terraced berms in the steeply sloping kirkyard around the side and back of the church. Alas, we could not find Mary anywhere. I know the stone is there, but unfortunately, I was not as organized as I should have been, and didn't have a map of the kirkyard (one is available from the good folks at the Aberdeen & Northeast Scotland Family History Society) identifying the stone. Shame on me. None the less, it was still neat to see this kirkyard and this small village which looks quite untouched by time.

As we headed home, I had one other stop in mind, which turned out to be much more rewarding. Isobel's sister Christian had married an aging laird who owned 8000 acres in Birse parish, and an equal amount in Lumphanan. Later in life, when she was a widow and her son the new laird was grown, she was given a place called Auchinhove Cottage to live out her years. (She lived at Auchinhove Cottage from 1823 until her death in 1849 at age 80.) Christian's niece Mary Sherrat (whose grave we couldn't find) lived with her or very nearby during that time, and Auchinhove was farmed by Mary's son Robert Cromar as late as 1901.

Auchinhove gateI knew from present-day maps that there was still some place called Auchinhove, and it was on our way back to Aboyne, albeit along a small country road. Just where the map said it would be, I was delighted to find a gate with a wooden sign on it saying "Auchenhove". (The spelling has wavered between an 'e' and an 'i' in the second syllable, but when doing genealogy you learn not to be overly distinguishing about spelling). The gate was open, so we followed a dirt and gravel driveway a small distance until we came upon Auchenhove Cottage, an old 2-story stone house a good bit larger than we Americans would expect to find called a "cottage". We pulled up around back where there was a place to park, and I walked around front and gingerly knocked on the door. After a couple of knocks, a woman answered the door and I asked if this was Auchinhove Cottage, and explained that my 5x-great-aunt had lived here 170 years ago. She was quite nice and we chatted for a bit. She explained that she was a relative newcomer, moved up here from England a few years ago. She didn't think the present house was as old as my aunt's time, but was probably later Victorian. She also told us that while she had only been here a few years, the older couple that she bought the place from had lived on it for a very long time, and they had retired to the smaller "gardener's cottage" of the estate, just a couple minutes away. She made a quick phone call for us, and told us that Mrs. Allen would be expecting us. (In chatting, we also discovered among other things that she worked as a docent at Crathes Castle, and sure enough we ran into her there the next day.)

Auchinhove CottageWe hopped in the car and went partway back out the drive to where it forked, and then followed that back to the single-story Gardener's Cottage and found Mrs. Allen. She did know a good bit about the history of the place, and knew that Auchinhove had been the "dower house" for the widow of a Finzean laird. While Auchinhove had once been a farm of some size, over the years it had been divided up and sold off, and the main house now has just a few acres, no longer a farm. But the most exciting thing was this: She said that the first woman was mistaken about the age of the house, and that it was still the same "dower house", although it had had some additions and alterations as most houses of that age do. So we had indeed seen the house that my 5x-great-aunt had lived in. It is so amazing to have studied my family history on paper (and microfilm and web pages), and then to actually see the very house lived in by my ancestors of six generations ago.

TRAVEL: The Whisky Pilgrimage

ABERLOUR, Scotland --- One of the essential pilgrimages in Scotland is to follow the whisky trail, to visit a distillery or two, learn how the "water of life" is made, and to taste a "wee dram". On the strong recommendation of my friend Antony, who had visited many of Scotland's distilleries, we decided to take a tour at Aberlour. It was not a malt I was familiar with, but in contrast to the more well-known distilleries on the "official" Whisky Trail that take in busloads of tourists, tours of Aberlour are limited to ten people (by appointment) and are much more personal. The village of Aberlour (which is Gaelic for "mouth of the chattering brook") sits where the Lour burn comes down from Ben Rinnes into the River Spey. The Spey is well-known to whisky lovers, -- many of Scotland's great malts come from the Speyside -- and as we climbed into the mountains on a small winding road, we passed through towns whose names (Dufftown, Craigellachie) were familiar to me from seeing them on bottles. At Craigellachie, we came upon the Spey and turned south along the river to Aberlour, with the Spey flowing in a deep ravine below the road. Across the river, I could see Easter Ellchies, home of Macallan, one of my favorites.

At the distillery, we met our guide, Wendy, a smart transplanted English woman, who had a clear knowledge of and appreciation for whisky, as well as a delightfully puckish attitude. ("Well, you didn't hear this from me, but…" became a refrain with her.) After giving us an overview of the history of whisky-making in Scotland, she lead us through the distillery, vividly punctuating the process with looks and tastes of the intermediate process. All whisky begins from dried malted barley, that is, barley grain that has been watered and begun to sprout, and then is dried over a fire. A whisky's character begins with the barley and even more significantly, with the amount of peat used in the fire to dry it. The peat contributes an earthy, smoky flavor. While the Speyside whiskies are generally lighter on peat, the whisky from the western islands tends to be much more smoky. Wendy showed us three samples of toasted barley malt that we could feel, smell, and taste. One was Aberlour's, and the other two, provided for an interesting comparison, were peaty Islay malts (Ardbeg and Laphraoig, if I recall). The barley malt tasted like toasted whole-grain bread, and you could clearly taste the smoky effect of the peat. (We didn't actually get to see the malting process itself, as very very few distilleries still do their own malting these days.)

The next stop was the grinder, where the dried barley malt (consisting of grains slightly larger than rice) is ground up into grist. This is accomplished by a large marvelous machine built many decades ago and looking like something out of the engine room of Jules Verne's Nautilus. The grist is then put into a huge vat called a "mash tun", where it is mixed with heated water from the nearby mountain spring, and slowly stirred into a thin porridge. The hot water dissolves the starch from the barley grist into a sweet liquid called "wort". We tasted some wort, and it is essentially a barley tea, vaguely brownish and with a sweet cereal taste. The wort is drained into another huge vat called a "washback", where yeast is added and the wort is kept at the right warmth to encourage fermentation. We got to stick our head into a washback and got knocked out by the alcoholic fumes and the pungent yeasty aroma. Wendy lowered a small container into the vat and pulled up a sample for us to try. It tasted like a malt liquor or rudimentary beer (which is essentially what it is at this point).

Stills at AberlourWe then moved into the still room, distillation being the next step in the process. The wash is transferred into a still, a very large copper kettle, vaguely pear-shaped with an elongated neck. Apparently, while stills take this general form everywhere, each distillery has its own distinctive design for the exact height and shape of its stills. The wash is brought to the right heat such that the alcohol vaporises but the liquid doesn't, and only the "worthiest" alcohol vapors rise the full height of the still's neck and into the condenser on the other side. The liquor passes through two different stills, and even from the second distillation, only the "heart" (the middle part of a batch) is taken, as the first part is too strong and the last part is too weak. The Scottish distilleries all feature something called a "spirit safe" in their still room, which is a padlocked glass case where the outflow from the still is diverted into one of two captures, depending on whether it is the "heart" or the other parts. (This quaint arrangement with the padlock comes from tax laws, so that they only pay taxes on the finished product quantity, rather than on all of the alcohol that flows out of the still.)

We came to a warehouse to see the final step, maturation in barrel casks. While the steps up to this point have only taken a week or two, the whisky now must be allowed to mature for a bare minimum of three years and more often ten or more. The whisky is matured in oak casks typically used previously for Bourbon, sherry, or port. (Bourbon casks are particularly plentiful, as Kentucky law requires Bourbon to be matured in new casks, creating a steady supply of used Bourbon casks.) The cask itself will impart flavor and color to the whisky as it ages.

Our final stop was the tasting room, where Wendy guided us through tasting six different samples, both neat and with water. (She explained how sometimes adding water can open up the oils, enhancing the flavor.) Aberlour uses a mix of Bourbon and sherry casks in its whiskies. We tasted whisky directly from each kind of cask, and we also tasted a range of Aberlour whiskies that blended the two kinds, including their 10 and 15-year expressions, and a distiller's edition that was double-casked. The blending can really add a nice complexity to the spirit. While I preferred the sherry cask to the Bourbon cask in the single-cask whisky, I found I preferred the 10-year old Aberlour (which has a higher proportion of Bourbon-cask to sherry-cask in it) to the 15-year old. The final highlight is that we were offered the opportunity to fill our own bottle of straight-from-the-cask whisky, serial-numbered and labeled on the spot. Of course we jumped at that chance, and now we have a bottle of 14-year sherry-cask-strength whisky that we shall greatly enjoy!

Saturday, August 19, 2006

FILM: Poster Boy

Poster BoyPoster Boy was one of those films where I was expecting just pleasant fluff and got more than I expected. The set-up: conservative senator from the south wants to involve his college-age son in his re-election campaign to bolster his "family values" image, but doesn't know that his son is gay. This theme could have gone in a lot of directions, from farce (like Birds of a Feather) to unsubtle politico-dramedy (echoes of Fahrenheit 911), but they took it in a more interesting direction: what would life really be like for the characters in such a story. We got characters who went deeper than cardboard stereotypes, and with some interesting shades of gray instead of simple "white hats" and "black hats". Not that there weren't a few elements that verged on cliché, such as the hypocritical repressed student Republican and the overly idealistic student activists. To its credit, the film did not give an imbalance of sympathy to either side, but instead made both of them imperfectly sympathetic (and thus more real). And ultimately, it wasn't about either side. The film kept its integrity to its interesting characters, and successfully avoided the temptation to depict shallow characters in service of political points. Given its character focus, the film benefited from outstanding performances from Matt Newton (as Henry, the gay son who's not exactly a good poster boy for any ideal), Jack Noseworthy (as Anthony, the activist who becomes unwittingly involved with Henry for non-activist motivations), Valerie Geffner (as Izzie, Anthony's HIV-positive depressive roommate), Michael Lerner (as the senator) and Karen Allen (as the senator's beleaguered wife). I had read other reviews that complained about a complicated and confusing plot, an unnecessary side plot, and the distracting framing device of the interview/flashback. I didn't find it confusing or distracting at all, and found the "side plot" of Izzie rather engaging, like a more serious version of Will and Grace, with shades of Rent thrown in. Real life is a bit messy, and I quite enjoyed seeing characters develop in not-so-predictable ways without trying to serve any larger message.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Maceration and Fig Jam

black Mission figsLast summer, as I was enjoying reading the Aug/Sept issue of that marvelous foodie magazine Saveur, in an article about some charming woman in Nîmes who loves to cook, she talked about making fig jam. As our fig tree was producing more sweet black Mission figs than we could keep up with eating, I thought, what a great idea. So I gave it a try, and it turned out to be easy and delicious.

In the process, I also learned a new word: macerate. Unenlightened about maceration, I was initially skeptical of the recipe that called for equal weights of chopped figs and sugar, plus a few lemon slices, to just let it sit in a heap for a couple of hours and then boil it. Boil it? I doubted. Surely one needed some liquid. I had made kumquat marmalade before, and that recipe called for liquid ingredients. But I figured I'd give it a go with a small batch. I sliced up a dozen figs, sliced up a half lemon, poured on some sugar, and let it sit in the pot. Two hours later, I understood maceration. Macerating is like marinating, only in reverse. The sugar draws the liquid out of the fruit. After a couple of hours, I had a chunky fig sludge that looked (and was) much more conducive to boiling. Then, just 12-14 minutes of boiling over medium-low heat, and there was fig jam! Just pour it into sterilized jam jars (prepared in the usual way by boiling the jars) and voilá. That charming French woman was right. (She was also right about the fact that fig jam makes a delectable complement atop a good vanilla ice cream. My first test batch filled one jam jar with just enough left over to put on some ice cream.)

Well, now it's fig time again, and the kitchen counter is filled with figs. I made a batch of jam a couple nights ago, but the counter is filled again, so I'll probably make some more. Just a few recipe notes:
  • She just quarters her figs, but I found that while the fig innards completely dissolve, the skins don't, so I've chopped them up a bit smaller than quarters (but still nothing close to mincing).
  • Last time I just used the lemon juice and pulp rather than putting in entire lemon slices.
  • This time I used a dozen medium to large figs plus half a lemon and got a couple small jam jars out of it.
  • Her recipe calls for equal weights of fig and sugar. These Europeans seem to weigh everything rather than measure volume. Do they all have little scales in their kitchens? In any event, I just eyeballed it. Put the figs in the pan and poured enough sugar over them to thickly coat them and it looked "even". (I suppose being American, I'm still thinking of volume even when I eyeball it. Equal volume is probably proximate to equal weight, no? How, I wonder, do figs and sugar compare in density?)
  • Stir frequently as it gets hot (and mash up the thick bits), and after a dozen or so minutes, the fruit is dissolved and you'll have a dark sweet-smelling syrup. (The recipe called for a temp of 215, but I went by time and eyeballing.)
  • The USDA says: "Figs are high in fiber and are a good source of several essential minerals including magnesium, calcium, and potassium."
  • Enjoy! (And don't forget to put the leftovers on some ice cream or yogurt - or just lick the pan!)

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

FOOD: Cliff's Edge in Silver Lake

We finally got a chance to try Cliff's Edge in Silver Lake. A neighbor had put us on to it, otherwise we would have missed this restaurant entirely, despite passing by it often. It is completely hidden behind a 99-cent store and has no street signage. Those in the know just pull into the unmarked parking lot, leave the car with a valet, walk through the door in the back, and are transported into a completely unexpected tropical patio. The setting is dominated by a huge fig tree in the center, surrounded by bamboo, and with tables scattered along wooden platforms at various levels built into a slope. The patio is open in the center, but along the edges the platforms are covered with tin roofing, and many of the tables have pillow-strewn banquette-style seating. Picture the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse redecorated by Pottery Barn (plenty of candles and hip lighting).

We were pleased to discover that the quality of the California-Italian fare matched the amazing atmosphere. The menu presented many intriguing choices, with Italian headings and ingredients, but the meat and fish dishes outnumbered the pasta offerings. I started with a salad of mandolin-thin slices of apple and endive, light and perfectly balanced with gorgonzola and walnuts. My main course was herb-encrusted lamb chops with horseradish, perfectly cooked, and complimented with a savory ratatouille and a light potatoes au gratin. George was quite happy with his black cod with chopped black and green olives, over fennel and with roasted asparagus. Mom raved about her pumpkin ravioli with kale, and my niece had the most perfectly prepared piece of Alaskan cod that I was lucky enough to get a sample of.

We'll definitely be heading back there again. You can find this marvelous place at 3626 Sunset, a block or two east of Hyperion, but keep it to yourself. This trendy place is hard enough to get into as it is.

FILM: Quinceañera

Quinceañera is a vivid portrait of two teenagers in a traditional Mexican family in Echo Park (Los Angeles), and how their family relationships are strained and tested by Carlos being gay and his younger cousin Magdalena getting pregnant. Both are ostracized by their parents, but are taken in by their great-uncle. As they come to learn more about their uncle, and about each other, and some of the hard lessons of life, they realize what it really means to be a family. Both Emily Rios (Magdalena) and Jesse Garcia (Carlos) give great performances, tough exteriors belying emotion underneath. And Chalo Gonzáles is marvelous as the venerable Tio Tomás, pushing his cart up and down the hills of Echo Park, with plenty of time for everyone. Writer/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have done a tremendous job with a touching story, genuine characters and dialog, and a setting that is almost a character in itself. Their picture of Mexican-Angelino family life seems authentic to me (though I'm no authority), and their picture of Echo Park is certainly authentic (as I can attest, since I live here, and was intimately familiar with most every scene -- that's my 'hood!). Glatzer and Westmoreland have surpassed their previous films, and deserve all the accolades coming from Cannes and other film festivals.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Log-Rolling Season

Log rolling is a well-worn tradition among politicians whereby a bunch of things most folks don't particularly want are bundled together with something most folks do want, making it a take-it-or-leave-it package deal. The Senate GOP leadership tried to do just that with an arbitrary bundling of a minimum wage hike along with an estate tax cut, calculating that the Democratic desire to boost the minimum wage would overcome their lack of enthusiasm for giving a tax break to a tiny percentage of the wealthiest Americans. The cynical plan failed when the Dems called their bluff (although Majority Leader Frist is promising to bring it back again in September). As Senator Grassley (R-IA) said, "we bet on the wrong horses." Indeed. It's sadly illuminating to see which arrows the GOP are putting their wood behind.

Meanwhile, closer to home, the Los Angeles City Council has been doing some log-rolling of its own. The City Charter currently includes term limits for the Council members (as well as for the citywide posts like City Attorney and Controller). The Council, egged on by the Chamber of Commerce, calculated that voters wouldn't go for a charter amendment to extend the council term limits from two terms to three, so they decided to "sweeten the pot" by adding a bunch of ethics reform measures to the proposal. Never mind that the term limit extension needs to be ratified by the voters, while the ethics reforms could be simply passed by the council without having to go to the ballot. Never mind that the City Attorney opined that the mixed-bag proposal is likely to be challenged in court for violating the "single subject" rule (a wise rule specifically targeting such log-rolling nonsense as this). Fortunately, they weren't quite so brazen as to attempt to put it on the ballot with a title touting "ethics reform" and saying nothing about "term limits" (though it was attempted). Very disappointing. I will of course be voting "no" on principle.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Tisha b'Av

Today was the Jewish fast day of Tisha b'Av. In Jewish history, Tisha b'Av (which is just a date -- the 9th day of Av) is like a September 11, only magnified by having several huge catastrophes all happen on the same day throughout history. On Tisha b'Av, 586 BCE, the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. On Tisha b'Av, 70 CE, the Romans destroyed the second Temple. In 135 CE, when the last outpost of Jewish rebels were vanquished by the Romans, that was on Tisha b'Av. Jews expelled from Spain? Tisha b'Av. So you can see why it is a very solemn day of commemoration. You can also see why Jews might be a little apprehensive about the day. If Hezbollah terrorists were going to land a huge rocket barrage in Tel Aviv, today would have been the day.

While I'm sure there have been quieter Tisha b'Avs, I was relieved that nothing hugely climactic happened today to pile on to the tragic tradition. Not that each of the 8 Israeli civilian deaths, the 4 Lebanese civilian deaths, or the several military deaths weren't tragedies. Sadly, those numbers do not distinguish today from yesterday or from tomorrow. Today was a day for contemplating what has been lost and cannot be recovered. It is also a day for contemplating the remarkable human ability, in the wake of devastation, to pick up and keep on going.

Hezbollah Targets Civilians. On Both Sides.

Listening to the news reports on the war in the Middle East, it's easy to miss the implicit double-standard. The journalists generally try to provide balanced facts, which at this point include a casualty count of at least 548 Lebanese (at least 477 civilians), and 56 Israelis (19 civilians). Without context, these bare facts make Israel look the bully and lend credence to the charges of "disproportionality". The figures are updated daily, reinforcing the false impressions, and context is seldom provided. The missing context includes several crucial factors. For one, the Israeli capability to destroy what they aim at is far superior to Hezbollah. The vast majority of Hezbollah's rockets have landed in Israel with no mortal result, not for lack of intent, but for lack of capability. For another, the Israeli capability to take refuge is far superior to the Lebanese. Having had Scud missiles sent at them from the first Gulf War, the Israelis were well-prepared with warning systems and bomb shelters built into many homes. Finally, the most important reason is that Israel does its best to keep its own civilians safe, while Hezbollah cynically pushes Lebanese civilians into the line of fire.

This issue of targeting civilians is another place where the insidious double-standard creeps in. Hezbollah peppers Israel with rockets, generally targeting civilian areas such as Haifa and Tiberius, with little ability to hit any particular target, but they don't really care, because their intention is to cause general terror. However, they are terrorists, and such indiscriminate targeting is what everyone expects of them. There is no surprise or controversy in their intent, so their intent gets little attention in the day-to-day news. The count of Hezbollah rockets fired, along with any notable damage of the day, is duly reported, but as to their indiscriminate targeting of Israeli civilians -- no news there. The terrorists are doing just what we expect terrorists to do. With Israel, on the other hand, its stated intention is to hit military targets and avoid civilian casualties insofar as possible, a noble intention that they have understandably fallen short of on numerous occasions. Yet precisely because expectations are so high for Israel to conduct itself flawlessly, every time Israel hits any civilians, that's news, and gets reported as such. Thus, we repeatedly hear on the news the shock and horror of Israel hitting civilians. Because news inherently focuses on the unexpected, and because the expectations are so imbalanced when a decent nation fights a terrorist group using civilian shields, the news cannot help but create an imbalanced impression unfavorable to Israel.

Listening to the news, it's too easy to miss the responsibility of Hezbollah, not only for the Israeli civilian casualties, but for the Lebanese civilian casualties. The IDF is doing its utmost to hit only military targets, but it is Hezbollah who is intentionally and callously using the Lebanese civilian population as its shield. What happened at Qana (where 37 children were killed) was a tragedy, and the Israelis did indeed drop the bomb, but it was Hezbollah who drew target rings around the town. That building where the Lebanese children were hiding is the same place that Hezbollah were hiding their rocket launchers. People of Lebanon, if you think that Hezbollah is your "protector" from the Israeli aggressor, your trust is misplaced. Hezbollah cares nothing for you, except to use you, your wives, and your children for cannon fodder and propaganda.

UPDATE: Here's some very interesting info about the imbalance in the news coverage. It seems Hezbollah have quite the propaganda machine going.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Grilled Halloumi

In our local market, I had seen Halloumi* cheese, a sheep-and-goat's milk cheese that comes from Cyprus, which has the unusual property of a very high melting point, allowing it to be grilled. It sounded intriguing, so I decided to try it. I found this recipe on RecipeZaar, which sounded good. Cut the cheese into cubes, along with grilling veggies (I used green and red bell peppers, onions, and brown mushrooms). Prepare a marinade of fresh herbs (I used fresh thyme for that Mediterranean flavor, with a little prepared ground marjoram), lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, and seasoning, and marinate the veggies and cheese overnight. Then skewer them and grill, about 8 minutes, turning every couple of minutes.

The result was delicious. The veggies were very flavorful, and the cheese has a great taste, something like feta, but with a unique texture, firm and almost squeeky, somewhat like calamari. The pieces that got grill-charred had a nice grilled-cheese taste to them. However, contrary to what I'd read, the cheese does melt if it gets hot enough, and my cheese chunks melted off of their skewers and made a bit of a mess on the grill. I was able to pry much of it off, and what I pried off (even the charred bits) were very good. (The cheese resumes its firmness when it cools.) But it's clear I need to experiment with technique here. Lower temperature? (I had my gas burners on high.) Put them on a higher rack? (I had them on the main lower grill.) Anybody out there have experience with this?

* "Halloumi" is how they spell it in the English translation, but it's spelled with a chi in the Greek,
χαλλουμι, so that initial H is the thick heavy sort produced from the back of the throat.